Jake Needham, an international crime novelist, flicked out a link on twitter: “Ron Shaw asked me back on his internet radio show and we said things we shouldn’t have for a solid hour last night.”
Welcome to the Ron Shaw show. Get comfy. Grab a stiff drink. Lite a smoke. Kick back, and enjoy my interview with the internationally acclaimed author Jake Needham on The Ron Shaw Show. He’s heralded as the best known Asian author not from Asia. Jake’s a best-selling author with a colorful background. Mr. Needham’s actually a Jake of all trades!
Thank you Ron Shaw, I’m happy to be here man.
Can I ask you a question right off the bat?
I hope you ask quite a few questions. We got an hour here to get through.
That’s right, we got a whole hour to gallop down the road, ok. Now look, here’s my first question. Isn’t it true that you are every villain in every book you have written?
(Laughter) I don’t know where you found that. I think there’s probably some truth to that. It always annoys the hell of me that, especially if you right thrillers and mysteries, and you speak in libraries and book stores, there’s always some well meaning soul who says, “Well isn’t the hero in the book really you.” And my answer to that was, “Well look lady, why doesn’t anyone ever ask me if the villain isn’t me.” I think that’s true. You write books, you know how it goes. There’s a piece of you in everything that you do.
Hold on. You write great books. I’m looking for an editor and a ghost writer. You know, get five stars at Amazon…
Get James Patterson, I hear he doesn’t do much anymore.
Oh yeah, and I know why too. We’ll get into that in a little while.
Ok, Jake Needham folks. This is one of the most interesting man you going to listen too. I went to your site, JakeNeedham.com, and I listened to that interview you did for a podcast on international authors.
I’m very flattered Ron. I don’t know what the hell I said but if you liked it, it must have been pretty good.
Well what I was going to say, we can do on my show, just do a take two and expand it out like for an hour.
I’ll take deep breaths between sentences.
Ok. We aint going to do that. I’ll tell you what I would like you to do now is say anything about what you are and what you do. You got the stage to talk about 57 minutes.
I’m one of these authors who enjoys conversation with people but I’m not really great at talking about myself. I think most authors really aren’t because if we have something to say it’s in a dam book. And we put the stuff we have to say in there. I use to write screen plays for quite a while mostly for…
Yeah mostly tele movies. And I did some stuff for HBO and Showtime. USA use to do 46 original movies a year which was just wonderful. It was like the old drive in business. You set them up you knock them down and you knock them out. Nobody worried about them a lot. We had a lot of fun with them. I did that for ten or twelve years then I sort of, I don’t know what motivated me, I was wondering if I could figure out how to write a novel. So I sat down and wrote one. And then I gave to a regional publisher in Asia where we were living. And they put it out and the darn thing is still selling well after nearly 15 years.
It was a book called The Big Mango which was sort of a treasure hunt, if you like. Some guys in America who had been in Saigon when Saigon fell. And suspicions developed years later when they knew where a lot of money was that had gone missing. The problem was that they didn’t know. But as the threat piled up and they found themselves under pressure, they decide, what the hell, if everyone thinks we know where it is, maybe we do. And they went back to Asia looking for it. It was a kind of fun novel and it sold really well.
It became modestly well known when someone gave James Gandolfini,a copy of it when he was still Tony Soprano. They were wrapping up the Soprano’s and Jim got very excited about the book and wanted to make it for HBO as his first production when he came off the Sopranos. And we worked with it for a long time and I smoked a lot of cigars with Jim on the set. We worked on a script and tried to get it done. It just didn’t happen and Jim passed away. The whole thing has kind of gone into limbo now. I don’t worry about that a lot. The idea is that it was a novel and I was happy with it. Then after that I wrote seven more.
I’ll tell people now, you might not agree with me ok, but if you want to write books, it’s kinda like the first time you pop popcorn, ok. That first kernel goes pop, the books there and they just keep coming, don’t they Jake?
They do. I’m a strong believer in craft Ron. I don’t think being a novelist these days is nearly as much about being an artist than it is about being a craftsman. You know how to put stuff together. You can make a desk for your study because you work wood. You don’t claim you are an artist. You are a craftsman. You do a good job of putting stuff together. And I think particularly in an age in which relatively few people read but those people read an awful lot. People want production and they want stories out there. And if they like it they complain you don’t write enough books. And so the way you reach the public these days is that you write a lot of books. I wish I could write a lot fast than I do. I have friends who turn out three or four very acceptable books a year. But I can’t. I can’t do that.
Well well well, ok, that’ s a good question. What is an average ball park,amount of months, it takes you from beginning to the end of the book where it’s ready for people to buy.
Well I try to do two a year but I never ever make it. So it ends up being sort of seven, eight, nine months. Something like that. After I gave up my publishing company contract, I was published by Marshall Cavernesh, a UK publisher, for years. But we had some problems, which we can talk about later if you like. I just decided, it was a pain in the ass. It wasn’t worth doing it. Because Amazon was laying out new alternatives for being published so I decided to go that route. So about three books ago I gave up my publishing contract.
But the downside of putting out of your books in digital format is you are running a little business. And you need folks. I have an editor, I have a designer and proof readers. And you are forever organising them and directing traffic and working schedules. But when you have a publisher you basically release the dam thing and send it off to the publisher. And after they finish editing it, sometimes they ask you if you like the edits, and sometimes they don’t even bother to do that. By then you are onto another book. That’s one thing that slows me down a little.
When you finish the book there’s still several months of work to do to get it out there which in the olden days, which is two years ago, a publisher would have done it for you. But now you do it for yourself. But on the other hand there’s a great upside to it which is you have final control over everything. The package that you put out there is yours. The cover looks like it the way you want it to look like. The tone of the package is what you want it to be. You’re responsible for the whole thing. I like that. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. But it does add a little bit to the time. Which is why I aim for six months but it creeps up to seven, eight or nine.
So you just answered the question that I was going to ask you. Which did you prefer, do you like the way it is now much better?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I would never go back to dealing with a publisher again. Part of the reason is sort of unique to me Ron, in that I got my start publishing in Asia through regional publishers. I’ve never been distributed in the US in terms of print editions. My print editions were primarily distributed in Asia.
Hold on hold on, hold it right there. How many books were exclusively sold out of the US.
Five. And they made it to the US. It’s like James Golfini. Someone gave him a copy of the book because he wanted to read it. A lot of people got them but they were never sold here. The two reasons were, no US publishers ever showed the slightest interest and foreign publishers don’t really have the ability to distribute in the US. So it wasn’t some sort of moral decision on my part, it was simply that it didn’t work well. And you just can’t get the books distributed. So what I wanted to say, the reason for me I don’t miss print publishing is because my audience was really international.
From the get go it was always international. Yeah, it was published in Hong Kong and Singapore but the people who buy the books are expats, visitors and tourists. And I would get emails from South Africa, “I want to get the rest of your books but I can’t find them in South Africa.” And I’d say, “You can’t, they don’t exist in South Africa.” And so distribution of print editions for me was an enormous problem because when people found my books at the airport or in Thailand or in a book store in Hong Kong and decided they’d like to get some more they couldn’t get them. So when I switched from print publication to pure digital it was this weight that had been lifted. Because I had been making excuses for ten years as to why people couldn’t find the books. And all of a sudden everyone could find them.
To me the magic of digital publishing has nothing to do with what everyone talks about. But from the stand point of both writers and readers, it’s the same thing. And it’s availability. You recommend the book to me and I reach out with the one hand, tap on my lap top here, and within ten seconds I’ve got a copy. So what I find from a writer’s standpoint is that when people discover you, they buy everything in one swoop. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve got tweets or emails for Facebook postings from people who said, “Oh yeah I’ve just read a Jack Shepard book, I really like that one, so I bought all your other books. Because they are cheap. Books are cheap.
And as a writer, tending to reach audiences, it’s just so nice after so many years of daily emails from people who say, “I’d really like a copy of Killing Plato, but I can’t find it anywhere.” They say they can’t place an order. It was just a horrible pain in the ass. And if you are James Patterson, and your publisher is putting a 100 copies of everything you write at every book shop around the world that sells English language books, then I suppose that’s fine. But there are a very limited number of people who have won that particular lottery.
And also social media. Like twitter. I love it.
It’s marvelous. I sit here sometimes watching a football game on television and thumbing through Amazon. Oh, that’s interesting. I’ll have that. There you go. $2.98, $3.98, or 89 cents. I think it’s a great thing. Look what’s happened here. For a five dollar book, and that’s digitally available on Amazon at a 70 % royalty which is what Amazon pays. The author gets $3.50. For a $30 hardback the author gets, wait, three dollars. (Big laugh from Ronnie). Now wait a minute. I can sell you a book for five bucks and make more money than if you had to pay thirty dollars for it. It seems to me we both came out of it pretty well.
Jake, you use to be an attorney. So you are familiar with that term, do we cheat them hell?
(Laughter) Yeah absolutely.
It’s the reader who really makes out. At the end of the day you and I end up at roughly the same spot. A few cents, one way or the other. But the point is, instead of paying thirty bucks, the readers paying five. That has changed the behaviour of people who read a lot. Because books are now priced like magazines. Or even like newspapers.
And who’s not going along with the program Jake. You know. I’ve seen you sit there and smoke cigars. I’ve seen you. I’ve seen your pictures.
Yeah whatever. A bit of brandy and a cigar. And who do you think is sitting and chewing on their cigar now and thinking, Oh my god, what are we going to do, what are we going to do.
Well that’s where that other 25 bucks goes into, protecting that enormous industry and paying for a lot of lunches and the Manhattan office space and people who may or may not be contributing a great deal. Of course the publisher’s party line as well, “Without us, then how are people going to know what to read, because they have to look to us, we are discerning, we choose really fine stuff. And the stuff that’s self published is just a lot of dreck.” Well if you really believe that I recommend you go down to Barnes and Noble and leaf through a bunch of paper backs if you want to see a lot of dreck that these fine cultural icons have chosen for you to read. I just think that’s horse shit. It’s absolutely horse shit.
You can say anything what you want on this show.
That’s what it is. I have no doubt that there are fine people in publishing like fine editor’s who contribute to a lot of writer’s careers. But all writers don’t need that. If you need someone to assure you of your self worth then go find a publisher, but if you don’t, all you need is your readers. I don’t understand why anyone deals with a publisher any more. I just don’t see what they bring to the table.
It’s excruciatingly painful Jake to try and find someone to publish your book. When I wrote my first book, October 2013, I never thought I was going to write a book. I never dreamed of it. I’m a retired policeman. But when I did write a book, I thought what do I do with it now Jake.
Well the old system was pretty straight forward Ron in that you first had to interest an agent. And then an agent had to go out and pitch it to a publisher who then had to publish it. You want a publisher who is pedaling access to the market that you could not access with out a publisher. Because even if you go out and print your books Barnes and Nobles is not going to stock them. And then what agents pedaled was access to publishers. So at two levels you had people telling you without us you had no access, you’re nobody.
All of a sudden Amazon turns this thing upside down. And you don’t need either of these levels of people to give you access any more. I’ve got no friends in the book business but I’ve got a hell of lot of readers. And I tell you man if I had to choose between having friends in the book business and having readers, I don’t have any difficulty in making that choice at all.
I think it’s a golden age of reading. Like I was saying before, the way Amazon has brought books to market now forces down the price to an impulse item that if you are going to pay thirty dollars for an hard back you are going to think about it. You are going to go into a book store and say maybe I’ll buy it or maybe I won’t. For five bucks it’s an impulse item. It’s like buying candy at the Seven-11.
It’s like buying a couple of magazines when you walk through the airport. You don’t decide in advance that you are really going to love this book. You just fork over two or three bucks, and after fifteen minutes if you decide you don’t like it then you chuck it, it’s only a couple of bucks. And that’s the way it ought to be. Readers now, when they are real readers, in my experience at least, are buying vastly more books than they ever bought before. Because instead of 30 bucks for one book, they can buy six books for the same price.
I think it has fundamentally changed the relationship between readers and writers. And in a way which benefits both of us. And the only people who are getting frozen out are the publishers. And they are fighting desperately to protect the business the way it always functioned. But you know Ron, you can’t do that. Everybody who has ever tried to do that has failed.
Disruptive technologies always win without exception. And if you don’t believe that I’ll meet you down at Tower Records and we can talk about it.
Oh yeah, all these anchor books stalls are closing around the world. Lets talk about that.
I went to a Barnes and Noble fairly recently, I was just appalled that their strategy for saving their position appears to be to sell less books. If you look around the store, now it’s filled with candy and games and notebooks and office supplies. You almost got to look hard to find any books. And then they complain, We sell fewer books, and that’s why we don’t stock so many books. Ok, that’s how it works. Amazon doesn’t seem to have a problem.
Now you are pretty much a world traveler. Where do you find in the world where a country is more up to date with the technology, how it’s playing out, is it Japan or America?
There’s not a big ebook market there Ron, there really isn’t. While I think you would be absolutely correct in saying that the technology like places like Japan and Korea is way ahead of ours in terms of delivering extremely high speed. That’s used on video and shopping and what have you. Ebook reading is very much, in my experience, a function of Western society.
That the US is the grand daddy book market. There’s much talk of trying to foster a better ebook market in Europe but it’s relatively smaller than it is in the US. And it is the US that has really driven the ebook market. But on the whole the ebook market is driven by three kinds of fiction. It’s driven by Romance novels. It’s driven by sci-fi novels. And down in third place it’s driven my mysteries and thrillers. But that’s what really drives the market. People who read those three kinds of books, the three genres, are on the whole very big readers. So they buy a lot of books. And they like the convenience and they like the cheapness. So that’s what really drives it here.
In Asia I think it’s more of a physical book market.
Well wait a minute. Hold on. that’s fascinating. What you just told me, ok, before you really entered big in America , you were in Asia. But that’s when you were doing the paper back and hard back. And now you are still huge in Asia but they are not that big on ebooks.
Well I’m sure huge is the right word anyway. I think I probably sell there less now that my printed editions are not available. I built up a sufficient audience over the years that I have people who know me pretty well. I use to get a lot of reviews and a lot of PR in the big daily newspapers like the Straights Times and the Bangkok Post and the South China Morning Post and so forth. And I kind of live off that. But without print books I have a general sense that I’m being sort of forgotten there which doesn’t bother me a bit. Because the total print sales were bupkis next to what my ebook sales are now.
Do you spend half your time in Asia and half in the US?
It use to be mostly there and a little here. Then it became sort of half and half. Since the military coup in Thailand it’s not a very happy place to be and we spend far less time there now.
Did you have to stay under cover after the coup ?
No no. It wasn’t quite that bad. The only time anybody panicked was when in the middle of the coup, the BBC called me to make some comments. And my wife said, “For God’s sake, don’t say anything.” Mmm shut up, so we sort of let that one drift wide. Don’t know where the BBC got my number. But right in the middle of the tanks rolling down the streets, I pick up the phone, “This is so and so, BBC ..” And I’m thinking, oh shit.
On the scene, Jake Needham. Oh no I see guns.
I have no interest in being a war correspondent. None what so ever.
Are you expat officially?
Well I don’t know if anyone makes an official decision on that. I’ve lived in Asia for nearly thirty years.
But you are still a USA citizen?
Let me preface this. You mentioned romance. That’s probably number one genre. I am finishing my third book in a three book series, a Victorian ghost story and I’m having to write a little bit of romance Jake. Me romance, come on Jake. Ha ha it’s hilarious. My romance is kind of like Jakie Gleason.
Haha, that’s an awful image.
So for me that’s outside of my comfort zone. Do you have anything outside your comfort zone?
I never thought about having anything outside my comfort zone per se. It started out and I wrote The Big Mango. I didn’t even know what the hell it was. I didn’t set out to write a specific kind of book. I was just intrigued by the fall of Saigon in 1975. It happened rapidly in 24 hours how things changed. And what the effect of that might have been and so forth. I sort of built a novel based on that. I’ve never thought in terms of writing for a specific genre. They fall into mysteries and thrillers.
I don’t know what else you would call them. But I don’t have much interest in doing much of anything else. I don’t think about it a lot to be perfectly honest Ron. I just sort of get an idea of an interesting thing that would make a book. Most of my books are based on, they aren’t based on, that’s not true, they grow out of actual events, historical events, that happen. And you think about it and a novel grows out of it.But I don’t really think of making it something specific. If someone says write a sci fi novel, I guess I could, but it doesn’t really interest me much. Life is short and you don’t have a lot of books in you. And I wouldn’t want to piss one on the way just for the hell of it. I don’t really think about it. What ever comes out just comes out.
I’ve invited some authors to write an anthropology on the paranormal, I’ve had to convince some writers that they can do it. What about you?
I can imagine that to be relatively hard. I’ve been invited to do that several times. But I’ve always said no. A couple of times I ended up writing the introductory essay. But I’m not a fan of short fiction. I just have to tell you honestly. I don’t read it. I’ve never tried to write it. But once or twice, and once fairly r recently I thought ok, I’ve got to think about this. I ought to be able to do this right. One thing people have done to promote their longer on Amazon is that they write shorter work. Everyone I know has done it. And they put up a 99 cent 15 000 word piece basically being a promo for the longer work and series and so forth. And I keep trying to convince myself that I would like to do that. And I haven’t pulled it off yet. Because I just don’t think I would.
And each time I buy someone’s collection of short stories I sort of lose interest by the time I’ve read three. You know I love novels. It’s the complexity of the growth of the novel. I don’t like sitcoms on television. I don’t watch sitcoms ever. Because the forms too short. And I don’t think it goes anywhere. And I think you need a basic sixty minute hour before you can present enough material for it to take my interest. I’ve never tried short fiction and I keep trying to tell myself I’ll do it one of these days but it hasn’t happened yet.
When I first saw The Big Mango, I thought of The Big Lebowski.
Oh wow that flattering, I like that. Yeah there’s some of that there. The Cohen brothers kind of thing. I’m happy to say that some of it is pretty funny. It tries not to be forced about the humour. It’s mostly situational humour. And I enjoyed writing it.
Actually I’ll tell you a funny story. It was done and thrown out there. There is a great and not very honourable literary tradition in Thailand of expats who show up and after about fifteen drinks they decide to become a novelist. They write the most god awful crap you’re ever read in your life. And it’s a category genre that I started referring to twenty years ago as bar girl and bullshit books. They were just awful, there’s this girl in this bar, and she’s done me wrong.
So anyway, The Big Mango was originally meant as a send up of those books. But nobody got the joke. Everyone thought it was like them but better. So it just drove me nuts. Nobody got the joke. And when it did so well. When Asia Books put it out, it sold about 100 000 copies in a couple of years. And that was just in South East Asia and no where else. But then as any writer knows , after the initial success, your immediate thought is, Oh shit, what do I do now. That’s when I cam up with the Jack Shepherd character. I worked on that one for a while. And that’s done pretty well for me. There are four books in that series. And then I came up with the Inspector Tay series, a Singaporean cop who’s not really happy about being a cop or a Singaporean. The third book in that series actually comes out on Wednesday.
That’s good timing Jake.
It is. There are three books in that series. And you know, it just sort of evolved. It was never a real plan Ron. I never for a minute sat down and said, well this is a career. Well it’s not a career. I just somehow started doing it and kind of worked out ok.
With the writing thing. I suppose there are people who plan careers and who think it all through. But more and more with the accessibility of the kinds of tools that are available, interesting people who have some interesting things to say and enough talent to actually put words together are writing some dam books that they wouldn’t be writing them five years ago or fifteen or twenty years ago. And readers love it. To me my validation is that there is just nothing better when you get an email or a Facebook posting or a tweet from somebody you have never heard of who actually says, “Man I’ve just read such and such and it’s actually just wonderful, I can’t wait to read the rest of your books.” And I think that’s just really nice.
We have a world of alternatives to choose and he ends up choosing you and that’s why I like it, it speaks to me. And that’s how fiction works. It’s not a question of fiction being good or bad I think in most cases. But some things speak to some people. Like romance novels, I wouldn’t read them, there’s nothing wrong with them, and I’m sure there’s some really fine romance novels, it’s just something that I don’t read. You walk into Barnes and Nobles, and I look out there, and I got ten thousand books, and of them nine thousand I wouldn’t want to spend any time on but it doesn’t mean that they are not competent and perfectly competent writers who can put them together. It just doesn’t speak to me, it doesn’t appeal to me.
Hang on a minute. I’m reading the quote on your website from The Bangkok Post, “Jake Needham is Michael Connelly with steam rice.” I read that earlier and thought, that’s great. That’s a great line.
I’ve met Mike about half a dozen times in one context or another, I have always wanted to tell him about that line but I would feel like such an asshole in telling him. I’ve never done it.
With your Inspector Tay series, I wanted to ask you, in law, did you do any criminal law?
Oh yeah. My first job out of law school I was a public defendant for the District of Columbia. It was quite an experience. It was just before the crack epidemic in DC so it was still a bit innocent although the streets were tough and I did a year in the court houses here. And at the time, DC doesn’t have State courts. It didn’t then. Because being the federal district everything went in the federal district courts. So my first appearance was in front of Gerhard Gesell who was the Watergate judge. And you learn fast man. There was no local JP courts or anything like that. You were in Federal District Court because every felony in the district of Columbia routed straight to Federal District Courts. And it was quite an eduction.
What other areas of law did you practice?
What happened after that I got hired by all things, the Airport Pilot’s Association because they were looking for a guy with a lot of litigation experience to handle their Washington Litigation National Transportation, Safety Board and that sort of thing. And they offered what at the time seemed all the money in the world so I jumped at it. And so I sort of ended up in the Air Line business. And it was an exciting time in the airline business because it was in the time when the airlines were being deregulated. And the Civli Aeronautics Board was putting themselves out of business. And there was nobody who really knew how to do mergers and acquisitions in the airline business because there hadn’t been any. There was no such thing. So I kind of learned that business and it got me into corporate mergers and acquisitions and from there we ended up in international corporate mergers and acquisitions and that was how I ended up abroad. I was doing international corporate work mostly for airlines.
How many years you practice law then?
Well actively probably twenty years. It kind of blurred in the end Ron. I was invited to join some corporate boards and I did. But I’m not sure if that’s active practise in the sense of people bringing you cases. You are involved specific companies but that was mostly abroad. And I developed a sort of minor expertise in leading foreign companies in their US business endeavours. And see if they understood the US regulatory environment and guiding them through some of the difficulties in acquisitions that they were doing in the US. I lived in Sydney for a while and Hong Kong and Bangkok and Singapore.
Where do you like living the best Jake?
Absolutely, I’m happy to be here.
Tell us about Hollywood, New York City. Tell us about the screen writing and the production company.
Actually it’s a funny story. What happened was that I was on a board of an Australian conglomerate that owned a television network in New Zealand and Australia. And a bunch of other stuff. It was a huge company and we were involved in an acquisition deal that I was running. The company that we were acquiring in the US had owned amongst other things a broken down little production company in Hollywood that was making tele movies. People hear of production companies and you think of sound, stages and cameras.
It’s not that, it’s just an office and a couple of guys. And you rent all that stuff. Anyway they didn’t want that company because it was a problem for them from a legal standpoint. It was sinking the deal and we couldn’t figure how to get rid of it. And in total frustration and in the middle of the deal I finally slammed on the table with one hand and said screw it, I’ll buy it. And so I did, I bought it. So I bought the company out of the deal to keep the deal from collapsing.
And so I found myself with a partner who came in on the deal owning this little broken down television production company. And like every lawyer who gets involved in Hollywood , I was absolutely convinced that all these people had been standing around for fifty years waiting for me to show them how they should be running their business. Being pretty obvious to me, the problem with this company had was that it was capital poor as all production companies always were. But they were doing what most productions did, going out and finding projects and then trying to figure out how to make the project on as little money as they possibly could get away with. And so my blinding insight was, No, that’s not how you do it. What you do is sit down and inventory everything that you bring to a deal. Who do we know, what actors, what directors, what location do we have access too. What can we put into the deal other than money and then go out and get the writers you’re working with and build materials that plays to your strengths and not your weaknesses.
And when I sat down I knocked out an example. It wasn’t really a screen play. I was outlining an example of the kind of thing I think we could do. Ok, that was it and it went to the writers and so forth. But six weeks later one of the development guys came inside and said, I’ve got great news. You know that screen play you wrote HBO wants to make it. And I’m saying, What, I didn’t write a screenplay what are you talking about.
How many pages was the proposal?
It was probably a twelve page treatment. And it took me a while to realise what the guy was talking about. I had no idea what he was talking about. And lo and behold HBO had seen it by accident somewhere there said, This is pretty cool, we’d like to make it. And would you flesh it out. Just put some more stuff in it. And so they shot it. And I thought, shit, I don’t know, I guess I better hire a screen writer.
What did you write it about? Did it ever get seen?
It was an awful piece. I don’t won’t put my name on it. I didn’t put my name on it back then either. I took my name off. I end up doing about half a dozen originals and maybe doing work on two dozen screen plays, mostly USA, Showtime and HBO.The funniest one we shot was a movie for HBO which was Ali MacGraw last movie. It was called Natural Causes which was about all things a presumed plot to assassinate Henry Kissenger in Saigon. It was quite ok. The director made a complete stinking pile out of it. But that’s the draw back to the movie business. You have no control, you just put it out there and it turns into what ever it turns into.
My one deal in the movie business, I always insisted on having a provision in my contract , when I saw it, I could take my name off it. You just don’t want your name on some of that crap. But it was fun. I also think there’s a craftsman like fact to the film business. You have two million dollars to make a movie and you do the best you can with that. You set them up and knock them down. You don’t screw around with it.
Wouldn’t you have loved to be the producer of The Last Picture Show now?
You know Larry?
He’s a good friend of mine. He’s coming on the show next week.
Now Jake you sound shocked.
I went to school with Larry.
Oh get out of here.
I did. I went to Rice with Larry.
Rice University. I went to school with Larry. I did indeed.
That was my lead into telling you about Larry McMurtry.
I knew one of Larry’s better books that no one ever read. It was actually his second book called Moving On. And it was written about all of us at Rice when he was a graduate student. I was an undergraduate when he was a graduate student. Larry lived here in Washington for a while. He had a book store in Georgetown of all things. I guess now he’s back in Texas. Larry must be, jesus, pushing on eighty now, something like that.
You were room mates at Rice. What was he working on?
He was working on Moving On. His first book Hud which was actually called Horseman Pass By. Larry got a thousand dollars for it. And he was working on The Last Picture Show. And I remember we were all sitting around at night, he was reading chapters and drinking beer , we all sat there and said Larry Baby the title is a loser baby. The Last Picture Show, it just lies there. The irony is, what I remember, Larry said start a book with a title and then figure out a book that goes with the title. And I have ended up Ron, in feeling the same way. I always start with a title. And sometimes I get a cover that goes with the title. Then I sit down and figure what kind of book goes with the cover and the title. Because you start with something you feel strong about. I felt strongly about The Last Picture Show but I really thought it was a shitty title.
You are a linear type?
Yeah, I like titles. When I was out of Rice, the first year after law school, I actually worked for NBC for about a year. And I was a writer and a producer in the Houston bureau and we put together the other bits and pieces and news feeds from there. Anyway, they called me the title guy. Because anytime someone needed a title in thirty seconds they’d come running into me and say give me title. And I’d come up with some kind of a title. I’ve always loved titles. I just think titles sing. And now looking back, I now understand Larry was right and I was wrong.
Your new books is coming out in two days. It will be available everywhere.
It’s only going to be on Amazon for a while. It will be available for Kindle on Wednesday and the preorders are pretty good. I guess it will shoot out there. The Inspector Tay books, Sam Tay is a CID cop in Singapore and he’s in his late forties and sometimes looks around and wonders how he got to be so dam old so fast.
And Singapore is a funny little tight highly rigid society which sort of poses as a modern Western democracy. But in fact it is very Asian. Sam’s father was American and his mother is Singaporean which causes him to fit in not at all that well. Because he has traits of American individualism in him that don’t go well terribly in Singapore. And as a cop he’s always in trouble.
And I wrote two books about Sam. The first one was called The Ambassador’s Wife about a woman who was found dead at the Marriott in Singapore who turns out to be the wife of the American Ambassador. And the plot spins out from there.
And the second book was called The Umbrella Man and it was about a mysterious fellow who appears in some old photographs that he inherited from his father who fitted into a crime which he was investigating in Singapore in odd and bizarre ways. And the third book is called The Dead American. And it is loosely derived from a case in Singapore about a year and half ago on which a young American engineer presumably committed suicide that was the strangest suicide that you saw.
The Singaporean cops were anxious to shut down the case quickly as suicide. But the boy’s parents went nuts because it didn’t exactly add up. And when they tried to challenged the police findings of suicide they ran into stone walls in every direction. But their argument was that the guy had been pressured in fact involved in espionage for a Chinese company that was operating in Singapore and that when he refused they killed him.
That’s not what the novel is about. The novel is based on an engineer software developer who is found hanging in his apartment. And the police pronounce suicide and the novel spins out into a completely different direction. But what is the same is the kind of paranoid sensibilities in the Singaporean authorities below the surface in which they desperately try to control everything. And frequently making a bit of a mess of it. And Tay gets involved with a woman from the Wall Street Journal who is investigating the boy’s death. That’s the plot of The Dead American.
The other series involves an American lawyer called Jack Shepherd become someone different. It was one of those, it seemed like a good idea at the time kind of offer that he got. The first book was called The Laundry Man in which a law partner who he thought had been killed actually turns out to be alive and involved with a shady bank in the Philippines and comes to Jack to bail him out.
The second book was called Killing Plato which is actually one of my favourites. The villain is a man called Plato Karsakis who was an extremely wealthy American who had an arrangement with the CIA by which they pressured him to use his companies to run some projects that had put him in some extremely difficult positions and he became a fugitive when they tried to prosecute him and to shut him up. And he became what he referred to as the world’s most famous fugitive.
And he comes to Jack to help ask for a Presidential pardon because Shepherd was a well connected Washington lawyer before before he cashed it all in. The third book was called A World of Trouble in which Shepherd ends up having been drummed out of Thailand after representing Karsakis and finds himself representing another guy who was drummed out of Thailand as a Prime Minister who was forced out and in exile and living in Dubai. And Shepard ends up in what is virtually a civil war in Thailand trying to negotiate between two opposing forces to keeping the company from blowing up.
And the fourth book in the series was called The King of Macau which Shepherd is brought in the MGM Casino of Macau to try and crack a money laundering ring and in fact gets cross ways with North Korean intelligence who is using Macau as a major money laundering point. And Kim Jong-un gets involved and all sorts of nefarious North Korean characters. And those were the Shepherd books. And the other book is The Big Mango which we talked about earlier.
It’s nearly nine o’clock. Cory, are we out of time. Well Jake, thank you for being in on the show.
It’s my pleasure indeed Ron. I enjoyed the conversation.
Didn’t the hour fly.
I hope we entertained a few folks out there.
And if anyone out there has got any questions about publishing or if I can be of any help to them, they can reach me through my website. I always respond to my emails.
Guess what, I got a Romance writer coming on the show next week …